Once byword for fine decision-making, Premier League side have mishandled much under Argentine manager
Southampton right to dismiss Mauricio Pellegrino, but may have left it too late
Until Southampton dismissed Mauricio Pellegrino, a theory was developing.
They seemed to be sleepwalking to relegation to such an extent that it felt plausible that they would not notice they were down until August, and they suddenly found themselves pitted against Shrewsbury Town and Barnsley.
Perhaps it took the jolt of Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Newcastle United and Pellegrino’s concession his side lacked spirit to jolt them awake. The Argentine was duly dismissed on Monday. Southampton have emerged from their torpor to panic.
They have just three remaining home games. Two are against Chelsea and Manchester City. Three of their remaining away matches are against clubs in the top nine. The other two, at West Ham United and Swansea City, assume huge proportions for a club who have not taken three points on the road since September.
The facts underline why Pellegrino should be afforded little sympathy.
Once a byword for fine decision-making, Southampton have mishandled much. They ought to have sold Virgil van Dijk last summer and if his continued presence until January enabled Saints to make a bigger profit on the £75 million (then Dh366m) defender, he proved an unnecessary distraction.
Yet with or without Van Dijk, Pellegrino mustered one win in his last 17 league games, and even that was against West Bromwich Albion. A capacity to draw against all-comers prevented Southampton from going into freefall and, along with a largely irrelevant FA Cup run, probably kept Pellegrino in a job for longer than he should have been.
But his team averaged under a point and under a goal a game. If he was hired to be the antidote to Claude Puel, charged with restoring entertainment, he instead offered an extension to the Frenchman’s underwhelming reign.
A narrative has developed that Southampton were wrong to dismiss Puel, who took them to eighth place and the League Cup final.
Yet a two-season arc shows the decline started on his watch. Southampton were 17 points and 18 goals worse off in Puel’s lone campaign than Ronald Koeman’s last. They deteriorated again under Pellegrino.
If sales are a mitigating factor, and it is certainly the case that the prolific Sadio Mane has never been adequately replaced, they should not enable the managers to escape responsibility.
Each has had a preference for defensive-minded, industrious but ultimately impotent strikers.
Pellegrino was far too slow to recognise that Charlie Austin was the best goalscorer at his disposal. The Englishman is now injured but, ludicrously, remains the top scorer despite only starting five league games.
He averages a goal every 99 minutes in the top flight this season. Between them Shane Long and Pellegrino’s £19m club record buy Guido Carrillo have scored once in 1,640 minutes.
Meanwhile, Nathan Redmond, one of his preferred wingers, has not struck in 1,646 minutes. It is little wonder a team with the eighth most shots score so few goals or win so few games.
The definitive Southampton match this season may have been a forgettable draw. No side have shared the points more often. Perhaps they reflected their manager’s passiveness.
Fraser Forster spent too long in the team before he was eventually dropped. James Ward-Prowse and Mario Lemina spent too long on the bench before being recalled and, while Southampton’s sales have left them with far fewer transfer targets for the top six than in recent years, they have a deeper squad than many of the other bottom-half clubs.
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That instead offered complications that Pellegrino never fully resolved. He departed without discovering his strongest side or without seeing his team often play to their potential.
And if one verdict is that Southampton were fatally wounded by the great sell-off, that should be ignored. They have plenty of players capable of operating in mid-table safety.
Instead, like West Ham, West Brom and Stoke City, they represent a case of underachievement which, to varying degrees, serves as an indictment of the respective managers. All of which would render it stranger if Mark Hughes, having steered Stoke into trouble, is charged with guiding Southampton out of it.
But change is needed. Southampton have been stumbling blindly towards the Championship, offering little other than dullness. Now, belatedly, they seem aware regression could mean relegation.
The question is if it is too late.